Back in 2015, I reviewed the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. What made it premium, according to Sony, was its 4K screen at a time when almost all screens on smartphones were 1080p, and a handful were 2K. It was silly, especially given that it only worked in 4K mode for two Sony apps; YouTube and Netflix’s Android apps didn’t support mobile 4K. Even if they did, the awkward truth is that you don’t have magic eyes: you can’t see the difference between 4K and 1080p on a screen that small.
After a brief return to common sense last year with the Xperia XZ, Sony has decided to treat us with another of its “magic beans” models. It’s not quite as daft as it was back in 2015, though. In the intervening 18 months, smartphone prices have shot up, and the £650 price tag now looks less unhinged than £599 did back in 2015. Plus, while the Xperia Z5 Premium was – aside from the screen – essentially the same as the Z5, the Xperia XZ Premium delivers a substantial speed boost over the regular Xperia XZ.
But that still leaves us with a brilliant smartphone with a silly screen.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium: Design
Say what you like about Sony, but it has a style, and it sticks to it. While the likes of Apple, Samsung, HTC and LG have rattled through different aesthetics practically every generation, Sony has stuck with its original formula: sharp angles, squared edges. Reassuringly chunky.
That’s not quite the whole story: there are slight design changes, but they really are slight. The long edges are more curved than the previous model, while the top and bottom of the phone are more severely square, leaving behind sharp corners that have a nasty habit of digging holes in your pockets. But this is distinctively a Sony design, which remains oddly impressive in a world of me-too designs, whether you’re a fan or not.
Even if you aren’t seduced by its looks, you can’t fault Sony for getting the basics right: the Xperia XZ Premium is IP68 water-resistant; it has a microSD slot; and its fingerprint reader is positioned on the right-hand side, integrated with the power button. In my view, that’s the best place for it. There’s even a dedicated camera button and, happily, room for a 3.5mm headphone jack. Take note, HTC, Apple and Motorola.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium: Screen
But let’s talk about the screen, because that’s the main attraction here. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, 4K is silly on a 5.5in display. It’s silly because your eyes can’t tell the difference between pixels that small. It’s silly because there’s precious little 4K content for Android. It’s silly because it drains the battery.
That last point also means that Sony doesn’t run the phone in 4K most of the time: just an upscaled 1080p. Which in turn generates another silly point: if it’s not dazzling enough to bother with 90% of the time, is it really worth it for the handful of cases when it can be used? “It’s great for virtual reality,” I hear you cry. Sure, but VR games aren’t rendered in 4K anyway.
Did I mention it was silly?
It’s a white elephant of a feature if ever I saw one. The Emperor certainly has a fine set of new threads, though, judging by the number of commenters who told me I was wrong about this last time around. And if you care about bragging rights, a pixel density of 807ppi can’t be beaten.
Despite the pointless resolution, the screen stacks up rather well. It’s an LCD panel rather than AMOLED, but it’s still a fantastic performer. It’s sharp, bright and vibrant. Brightness goes up to a very solid 524cd/m2 and the contrast ratio is great at 1,116:1. When Netflix and Amazon get around to supporting HDR through their mobile apps, the Xperia XZ Premium will be there to take advantage, too.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium: Performance
But as I hinted at in my introduction, an entirely superfluous 4K mode doesn’t make this a dead duck as it did the Z5 Premium back in 2015. While the Z5 Premium was just a Z5 with a slightly bigger 4K screen, the XZ Premium gets a shot in the arm across the board: it goes from a Snapdragon 820 processor to a Snapdragon 835, and gets a whole extra gigabyte of RAM for its troubles. The base model also has double the storage of the regular XZ, at 64GB.
The result is a phone that, unsurprisingly, feels buttery smooth to use. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip is the same one currently moonlighting in the excellent HTC U11 and the even better (US version of the) Samsung Galaxy S8. This makes it the phone a pleasure to use but, crucially, also puts the handset in very good company when it comes to benchmark results.
So, basically the same as the HTC U11’s performance, and a whisker behind the Samsung Galaxy S8. But what about graphical oomph?
On paper, that’s a clear win for the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, but the devil is in the details. The Xperia runs at an upscaled 1080p, as we’ve already established, while the Samsung and HTC flagships run at native 2K resolutions. The irony here is that Sony’s score is better on paper precisely because it outputs at a lower resolution than its rivals (although you can dumb down the resolution on the S8 if you want better performance). The “offscreen” result, which runs the same test at 1080p, shows there’s not much between the main players, however.
The Sony Xperia XZ Premium’s 3,230mAh battery didn’t perform particularly well in our video-playback test, though. In fact, it gave up the ghost just a minute over the ten-hour mark – significantly less impressive than its nearby rivals:
Anecdotally, however, the XZ Premium is one of the stronger performers we’ve seen, lasting an average of 1d 6hrs 36mins when measured with the GSAM battery monitor over the space of a week. That should do for most people, and we put the blame for the less-than-stellar official test results firmly at the door of a power-hungry display. If your phone lies dormant for most of the day, you’ll be fine.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium: Camera
The phone continues to impress with the camera, which is a 19-megapixel snapper with an aperture of f/2.0 and both phase-detect and laser autofocus. On paper, those are pretty similar specifications to the best in the game, the Google Pixel, and in well-lit conditions Sony’s latest certainly gives the big G a run for its money.
It’s good, but for my money, still not quite there. While the colour is certainly more vibrant on Sony’s snapper, it appears to be oversharpening things, resulting in a little loss of detail.
In low light, things worsen, though, with the oversharpening resulting in very noisy patches with severe grain in darker spots.
Sony has another trick up its sleeve for the Xperia XZ Premium, and that’s ultra-slow-motion video capture at 960 frames per second. And this works brilliantly, provided you’re in a well-lit area.
You can only do it in short bursts, but the opportunities for creativity in the right hands are hugely promising. Here’s a clip my colleague Jon captured while reviewing the handset for our sister site Expert Reviews that features a fidget spinner going flat out:
Genuinely impressive, although hardly a knockout blow for Sony’s rivals.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium: Verdict
Let me pin my colours to the mast one more time, just in case I wasn’t clear before: a 4K screen on a phone is silly. It’s innovation for innovation’s sake, rather than practically useful. The human eye can’t tell the difference on such a small screen.
But unlike Sony’s last 4K smartphone outing, I don’t think this disqualifies it from consideration. It’s a marked improvement on the Xperia XZ in other areas, and at £650 it’s expensive, but comparable with other flagships offering similar performance. In other words, you’re no longer paying a premium for a ridiculous feature. The LG G6 and the HTC U11 are both £650, too; the Xperia XZ Premium is better than the former and on par with the latter.
But then there’s Samsung.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is just £30 more. Or, to put it another way, for an increase of less than 5%, you get a lot more phone. And that’s the kind of price difference that becomes even less visible than the pixels on the Xperia XZ’s screen when comparing monthly contracts.
If only Sony hadn’t wasted its money on a 4K white elephant, eh? It might have able to undercut all its opponents and provide a genuine alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S8 at this end of the market. Maybe next time, guys.